- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 21, 2009

With the nation’s top immigration enforcement officers saying they will finish the border fence and continue President George W. Bush’s immigration enforcement efforts, the top Democratic senator on immigration said Wednesday that the nation’s borders are secure enough to begin working on a legalization bill for current illegal immigrants.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee, said that given progress over the past four years - from barriers to more agents to better technology - lawmakers have proved to the nation that they are serious about security. Now, he said, voters should be ready to accept a law that legalizes illegal immigrants and rewrites immigration rules.

“We can pass strong, fair, practical and effective immigration reform this year,” the New York Democrat said.

Efforts to pass a broad legalization bill faltered in 2006 and 2007 as voters flooded Congress with calls. Lawmakers concluded that voters didn’t believe the bills would actually control the border.

At a hearing before his subcommittee Wednesday, Mr. Schumer pointed to falling apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border - down 27 percent compared with last year - as evidence the borders are more secure. He said that should convince voters who objected in 2006 and 2007 to Senate legalization bills that the government has done its job.

Mr. Schumer did not credit Mr. Bush for the progress, instead praising Congress for passing the Secure Fence Act and other laws to strengthen border security - even though Mr. Schumer initally opposed the Secure Fence Act in 2006. He voted first to block the bill through a filibuster, but that effort failed and he voted for the measure on final passage a day later.

But Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said with 700,000 people still being arrested annually, “that is not a lawful border.” He also said his fights to get a vote on fencing and other security measures belies Mr. Schumer’s claim that voters can now trust that Congress understands the security issue.

“I don’t think the politicians have in any way distinguished themselves, ourselves, in this matter,” he said.

He said progress has been made in security, but rather than showing that the job is done, it underscores the prospects for success if the government takes other steps on enforcement.

“We are not there yet,” he said.

The Obama administration has changed the focus of interior enforcement from detaining illegal workers to the employers who hire them. On border security, the administration remains committed to expanding the strategies of Mr. Bush. That includes finishing his plans for fencing and vehicle barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border, said Border Patrol Chief David V. Aguilar.

“Everybody is in agreement; we will continue to build the fence,” he said.

During the campaign, President Obama said he wanted to have a comprehensive immigration bill done in his first year but he has since backed off that and said his schedule is too full. Instead, he wants to begin talks that will lead to a bill later.

Adding to that momentum, Mr. Obama will host a small group of congressional Democrats and Republicans at the White House in June to talk about immigration and where work needs to be done, according to an administration official familiar with the issue who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“The meeting is intended to launch a policy conversation, with the hope of beginning the debate in earnest later this year,” the official said.